Polish Canadians

Two other Poles reportedly in Canada in 1776 were August F. Globenski, an army surgeon of the Hesse-Haynau regiment, and Leveright Pinze, a surgeon of the auxiliary forces from Brunswick.

Polish Celebration
Celebration of Polish Sea Festival by Polish community, Coleman, Alberta (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/NA309132).
Polish Sea Festival
Celebration of Polish Sea Festival by Polish community, Coleman, Alberta (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/R5275-1-4-E, vol. 5813).
Polish Wedding, 1930s
Most Poles came to Canada during the Great Migration of the early century (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/R5275-1-4-E, vol. 5813).

In 1795 Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned the territories of Poland. The assimilation of Polish territories, as well as religious persecution and a poor economy, inspired the emigration of the Polish. The majority of the first Polish newcomers to Canada did not arrive directly from Poland. The first Polish immigrant arrived in Canada in 1752.

Two other Poles reportedly in Canada in 1776 were August F. Globenski, an army surgeon of the Hesse-Haynau regiment, and Leveright Pinze, a surgeon of the auxiliary forces from Brunswick. Karol Blaskowitz, a captain-cartographer of the British army, arrived in 1802 and Aleksander E. Kierzkowski, an engineer who became politically active in the St-Hyacinthe riding in 1867, arrived in 1841. Among the Swiss regiments that fought at Fort Barrie in 1812, there were about a dozen Poles from former Napoleonic legions. Sir Casimir Gzowski, a prominent civil engineer, railway builder and social activist, arrived from the US in 1842. Izaak Helmuth, from Warsaw, Poland, came via England and was one of the founders of the University of Western Ontario.


The 6 discernable waves of Polish immigration to Canada were from 1854-1901, 1902-15, 1916-39, 1944-56, 1957-79 and 1980-93. The first 2 waves included many family groups from villages and small towns of Austrian-occupied territory. Hardworking, religious peasants, many received land grants from the government or bought lots in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they built farms. Others worked on railway construction or in the coal mines. The second generation very often moved to larger settlements or towns, where they opened small businesses.

The immigrants of 1916 to 1939 arrived from an already independent Poland and settled (at least until 1931) primarily on the Prairies. Until 1944 Winnipeg had the largest Polish community. The first wave of immigrants after 1944 (over 50% of whom settled in Ontario) consisted largely of former soldiers of the Polish armed forces who had fought in Western Europe, former inmates of Nazi concentration or forced-labour camps and political refugees from communist Poland. From 1957 to 1979, immigrants again arrived directly from Poland. The wave 1981-93 (about 119 000) was motivated by the deep economic and political crisis in Poland; 50% settled in Ontario.

Settlement Patterns

With the exception of one homogeneous group from German-occupied territory which arrived in 1858 and settled in Renfrew County [Ont], the Polish newcomers frequently homesteaded (eg, in Manitoba around Springfield, St Clement's, Brokenhead, Lac du Bonnet, Whitemouth, Gimli, Bifrost, Glenella, Rosedale, McCreary and Dauphin) close to already established Ukrainian farmers, who were often from neighbouring villages in Poland. A widespread movement of immigrants to larger centres started in the 1930s.

According to the 2006 census, there are moe than 984 565 Poles living in Canada (single and multiple-origin responses combined). The largest Polish communities are, in descending order, Toronto (21%), Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg (each approximately 6%), Calgary, Montréal, Winnipeg (each approximately 4%) and Hamilton, Ottawa-Hull, Kitchener and London (each with approximately 2-3%). Smaller concentrations live in St Catharines, Saskatoon, Windsor, Oshawa, Regina, Victoria, Thunder Bay and Sudbury.

Economic Life

The first Polish immigrants helped settle the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and made up a large percentage of the labour force in mines, in the forest industry and in public works. The second generation and the post-WWII immigrants were more financially secure, with professional experience and technical qualifications. They opened their own enterprises, occupied executive positions in industry, and were prominent in social and health services and in higher education.

Social and Community Life

The majority of Poles are Roman Catholic, but there are also Lutherans and United Church members. A separate Polish Catholic Church, which is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has parishes in various cities (see Catholicism). Parishes formed the first organizational units, providing a framework for community and social life. Lay organizations appeared in towns only shortly before WWI.

The 1930s marked the appearance of social clubs that helped maintain Polish customs and traditions, as did the Polish government through its consulates. Polish credit unions were created across Canada. The first, the St Stanislaus Credit Union, was organized in Toronto; it is now the largest financial institution of its kind in North America, with capital assets of $223 million in 1994 and 38 530 members. In the mid-1950s women formed a self-contained and independent organization (the Federation of Polish Women in Canada), which was concerned with cultural and political issues. Various folk groups or dance ensembles surfaced at different times and in different communities.

The Catholic Church has played a very important role in the life of the Polish nation, especially in difficult times. For many immigrants in the past it provided the sole contact with their native country and its culture. The priests were advisers, defenders, spokesmen, religious leaders and community leaders. Catholics in Polish communities still observe the customs of Christmas, Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

The first Polish newspaper, which appeared in Winnipeg in 1904, was short-lived. The second attempt, Gazeta Katolicka (Catholic Gazette), was founded in Winnipeg in 1908. The Polish press in Canada today is very active and includes one daily, one semiweekly and several different publications.

Polish writers and poets include Louis Dudek, W. Iwaniuk, B. Czaykowski, Florian Smieja, J. Ihnatowicz, A. Busza, J. Abramow-Newerly, W. Liebert, A. Tomaszewski, J. Tomaszewski, E. Ejbich and the late Zofia Bohdanowicz, B. Czaplicka, A. Grobicki, A. Poznanska-Parizeau and Danuta Bienkowska. Artists include K. Bryzgalski, J. Kolacz, E. Kujawska, A. Pawlowski, L. Wyczolkowski, E. Koniuszy, S. Katski, T. Jaworska, G. Staron, M. Ciechomska, B. Michalowska, J. Lubojanska, J. Kolaer, G. Denisiuk, and the late E. Chrúscicki, H. Hoenigan, K. Sadowska and M. Schneider.


The first 2 phases of Polish immigration included numerous illiterate peasants, but later immigrants were generally well educated. The children were sent to public schools, but a network of part-time Polish-language schools was also established. Most of the latter are affiliated with the Polish Teachers Federation.

Ethnic identification is fully realized only within groups directly connected with Polish organizations or parishes. The Polish Congress encompasses some 160 independent organizations whose membership varies from a few dozen to a few thousand people. According to the 2006 census, Polish was the mother tongue of 217 605 Canadians.


Until 1980 the majority of Poles voted Liberal in federal elections. Candidates of Polish origin have always been supported by their ethnic constituents. Stanley Haidasz, born in Toronto of Polish parents, was the first Polish Liberal MP. He later became minister for multiculturalism in the Trudeau government and the first Polish representative in the Senate. There were 3 ministers of Polish origin in the Saskatchewan NDP government until its defeat in 1982. In the Mulroney Federal Conservative government, Donald Mazankowski was deputy prime minister. In the provincial government of Alberta, Walter Paszkowski is the minister of agriculture.

Group Identification

The feeling of unity among Polish Canadians has been expressed primarily in support of the Polish nation. Political and financial support for Poland was strong during WWII, when Poland was under German occupation, and later when the communist government attempted to suppress the church. An extensive "Help for Poland" program established in Canada after October 1956 has recently been revived. Contact with the motherland remains vivid through Polish-organized travel tours, family visits and language courses for the young. National pride was reinforced by the election of Pope John Paul II, the choice of Czeslaw Milosz in 1980 for the Nobel Prize for Literature and the selection of Lech Walesa in 1983 for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Polish Canadian Research Institute, established in 1956, conducts studies on Poles in Canada. It has an extensive library and archives and publishes its research (over 19 volumes have appeared in English so far). The institute co-operates with associate scientific centres both in Canada and Poland, provides scholarships and assistance to young researchers and organizes lectures. The Polish Scientific Institute, headquartered in Montréal, provides information on Poland's history and Polish ethnic groups abroad. In addition, 5 foundations have been established to assist Polish schools and cultural life.

Further Reading

  • Benedykt Heydenkorn, The Organizational Structure of the Polish Canadian Community (1979), and, ed, A Community in Transition (1985), and Poles in Ontario (1984), and with R. Kogler, The Structure of the Polish Ethnic Group (1988); M. Kobos and J. Pekacz, Polonia in Alberta (1995); R.K. Kogler, The Polish Community in Canada (1979); W.B. Makowski, History and Integration of Poles in Canada (1967); H. Radecki and Benedykt Heydenkorn, A Member of a Distinguished Family: The Polish Group in Canada (1976); V. Turek, Poles in Manitoba (1976); L.K. Zubkowski, The Poles in Canada (1968).

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